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Short circuits and open endings – a conversation with Micol Assaël

"I attempt to locate the dark zones of our understanding. To root out the limits, and to see how far they can be forced, to see what happens if they are violated. I use dangerous materials because the best way to try to understand the nature of things is to get myself into trouble – and then to find the way out of it. The unit of measure remains as allways – man.”(i) - Micol Assaël

By Jannecke Heien

Mindfall, Manifesta, San Sebastián, 2004. Courtesy of the artist and Galleri Johann König, Berlin

Mindfall, Manifesta, San Sebastián, 2004. Engines, fuses, petrol, cable, smoke and table. 557 x 252 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Galleri Johann König, Berlin. «It is a sort of pilgrimage that Assael envisions. In spite of their rough appearance, Assaël’s sculptures and environments can function as a secret passage to ethereal mental landscapes and distant emotional geographies. (…) They emit a spiritual noise.» viii

What was it about this small web image of an installation that made it stick to my memory and made me wish to find out all about it’s context and origin? The documentation of Micol Assaël’s installation Mindfall gives the impression of worn-out machinery, abandoned by its operators and heading towards the unknown. It makes me wonder what happened in this room – what will develop here, and will it in any way be possible to stop? Other parts of her work include large room environments in which she by means of electronics and mechanics creates (fascinating, in different ways charged) rooms where the viewer becomes physically involved through the use of temperature, air flow and electricity. A conversation with Assaël gives a glimpse into a way of thinking where dreams and the as yet unmapped frontiers of natural science become components in – and starting points of – art production.

Micol Asaël lives and works in Rome and Moscow. Kunstjournalen met her at a balcony in Fyllingsdalen (in June),short of sleepafter a long walk in the fair night.

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Mindfall, Manifesta, San Sebastián, 2004. Engines, fuses, petrol, cable, smoke and table. 557 x 252 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Galleri Johann König, Berlin.

Jannecke Heien (JH): I want to start by focusing a little to the side of your art practice, because when I read that you practise rock climbing it struck me as kind of logic that it must be interesting – and necessary – for you to investigate aspects of risk: what it means and implies to take risks. Would you say that this link is as evident to you?

Micol Assaël (MA):Actually I haven’t been climbing for the last four years. However, when you are moving on a vertical stone wall you have to be very aware of being in balance all the time; you have to feel your center of gravity and never forget it, because if you lose it you lose your equilibrium and fall into emptiness. It’s also a kind of ballet, as every movement turns out to be very harmonic around your center of gravity. So this practice is basically forcing you to be harmonic while facing the fear of the void and the fear of falling. I like dangerous situations and risk, but I feel a bit removed from it now after so many years. I just think that taking risks and facing your fears brings you into a zone where it’s necessary to react and consequently live an epistemological experience. In this zone I want to place art, as a completely free mental space.

JH: I am fascinated with the atmosphere that you create with these installations, and I am interested in knowing more about how these works came into being. Can you describe the origin of some of your projects – starting with Mindfall? (Manifesta 2004)

MA: With Mindfall I wanted to explore the moment after a short circuit; its natural, direct consequence. So I started to think about a context for a burned out electrical device, and the work started taking shape step by step. I went to a recycling facility where they allowed me to climb around in mountains of industrial materials and choose freely what I needed. I picked out a lot of old, electrical engines from different kinds of applications and with different power. A technician friend helped me set them up in order to make them running again. We put capacitors on them, a type of batteries that are necessary to provide enough power to start the engines. We lowered the rpm of the machines in order to make them sound like they were struggling hard, burning out under a big strain. Then we hid resistors in the back of each engine and set up a hydraulic system pumping petrol through tiny black tubes that looked like electrical cables. All the connections between the engines where done by means of a hyper-chaotic net of black wires. So when the engines were started, the petrol fell onto the hot resistors inside, and they released burned smoke, filling the air with hot petrol fumes.

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Theory of Homogenous Turbulence, 2002. Site specific intallation in the garden of Villa Medici-Accademia di Francia, Rome. Fans, light, loudspeaker. Courtesy of the artist and Galleri Johann König, Berlin

In San Sebastian I spent a month installing it all – it was like a kind of sickness; there was a kind of impossibility to finishing the work. I was making myself crazy with a lot of numbers and calculations that were completely useless, and I tried to draw up a kind of manual of my work based on the power of each single engine. In addition, I guess that breathing petrol fumes for that long was also very bad for my mind. When I chose the title, the meaning of this word was pretty clear to me. I think it was sticking to a mostly present and nasty state of mind, when you face the impossibility of thinking or understanding. I think it is caused by the stress – the room was in some way a sort of materialisation of my mind at that time. I also put resistors between two sheets of glass to get them to fog up. I like to think of it as a journey into my brain.

JH: Maybe because in my own practice, engines and physical apparatus in an artistic context would represent material of severe resistance, I find the form that you give your projects intriguing. Did the fascination with engines come because this is a foreign and hidden world for you – or on the contrary because it is a familiar field; something you have a natural confidence working with, and therefore see possibilities in?

Chizhevski Lessons, Kunsthalle Basel, 2007 Copper plates, steel wire, generator, transformer, voltmeter. Photo: Serge Hasenböhler «..every visitor who would enter the space would be electrified and could feel a current flow through the body. If a person or object with the opposite electrical charge was touched, a discharge would occur, accompanied by a blue spark.»3MA: No, it’s because it is a new world. I don’t know exactly how I began working with engines and things like that. However, my first job was in a foundry and I was very much fascinated by the tools we were using, for example for cutting and cleaning the bronze or for moving very heavy objects. Then again there was a sort of feticism of tools when I was working as an assistant in Nunzio’s studio, in Rome, and also when I was installing air conditioning systems with my technician friend Carlo. Technology and how you build things, how you find solutions to transform reality in order to use it for our own purpose has always fascinated me. Engines and tools have their own inner power and potential, which can also be scary sometimes.

JH:Mindfall was reinstalled at Galleri Johann König in Berlin 2007, with music by the Finnish composer Mika Valnio, who basically amplified the engine sounds. In a text by Francesco Stocchithe atmosphere was described as “excruciating”(ii). In what way did you feel that the sound piece completed or developed your concept?

MA: I invited Mika because his music has inspired me a lot in the past. He uses sound really as a matter, and his practice seems to me very close to that of a sculptor. So in a way his intervention on Mindfall completed it, added something really important and strong. It was amazing, like he put my work into life; he woke it up. Very intense.

JH: In Theory of Homogenous Turbulence, 2002, you’re referring to Heidegger’s The origin of the Artwork, fromHolzwege(iii). Can you elaborate a bit on the background of this focus? In addition, can you say a little about the link between the Heidegger reference and the theory of physics referred to in the title?

These gaps ... I think they are the main areas where people can understand a little bit of reality.

MA: I wanted to do something about loss of control. This was during a period when I was very into philosophy, and just after I’d gone to Vorkuta in Siberia without any map, in the attempt of loosing myself in vast, wild Russia. I used an open theory of physics, an unsolved problem, as the title for this work, because the intention of the show was to open up new ways of relating art to a text, to test the possibility of an interacting meaning between the two. I think that fields of knowledge, including that of art, are getting more and more specific, often implying new languages that start complicating interaction and communication within each field, such as in mathematics. I also think that at this point it may be easier to communicate and interact with unknown and foreign fields. There was a direct relation between experiencing the work – with the sound, the wind, the rotating light – and reading about a problem which has no solution. Facing these kinds of things must be very similar to finding yourself lost in the middle of a forest, not knowing wich way to go. The physics problem was about the turbulence of fluids, and the work itself was made out of air currents, which are fluid with an inner turbulence. In the Holzwege, Heidegger is investigating the nature of truth and its fight with darkness, or something like that. He is talking about a zone again, the Lichtung, which is an area in the middle of the forest, free of trees, where the road suddenly stops. And the work was also a Lichtung.

 

Risk as archetype

JH: Let’s talk about Chizhevski Lessons, the installation made for Kunsthalle Basel in 2007. In Polly Staple’s words, “walking into the room, you immediately felt the electrostatic charge of the piece – and with some force. It seemed to crinkle you up around the edges, literally electrifying you, resulting in a space/time dislocation at odds with the surroundings.” (iv) Who was Alexander Chizevsky?

MA:Chizevsky was a Russian scientist who investigated the relation between solar activity and incidents on earth. When he implied that the Russian revolution was one of the incidents connected with the solar activity, he was sentenced to hard labour and sent to Siberia, where he spent many years working in the mines. While there, he constructed an apparatus which was able to cleanse the air by means of electricity, in order to make breathing easier for the miners. Rumours have it that even Breznjev had one of these in his car. Apparently the Chizhevsky lamp was able to make people younger and make wounds heal a lot faster. The photographer who came to document our work in the laboratory in Moscow was very ill with a bad cold and asthma, but while the generator was working she was feeling good.

JH: I’d like to hear more about the collaboration documented in the video shown in the adjacent room at Kunsthalle Basel. How did you find the physicists who helped you develop the installation?

MA:It was totally by coincidence. You know, I’d been trying to realize this idea for a long time, but people just told me I was crazy and that there was no way it could be done. In Moscow in 2005, while installing another project for the Moscow Biennale, this man approached me, and it turned out he was a nuclear engineer from Murmansk. He was the first person who took my idea into consideration. After a first, somewhat troublesome process with him, the producer of the biennale helped me find some other engineers, and he was really lucky to find those guys. They developed several ways of realising the work, some variants. We chose the one we liked the most, and started building it shortly thereafter. We were working in an amazing laboratory which looked like something straight out of Metropolis. The three engineers and the technician only spoke Russian, but we had two interpreters, one from Tajikistan speaking a very basic English, and one who was half African and who was always very curious to get to know things from the engineers but never really in the mood to translate what they were saying.

Formuška, Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel, 2009 Photo: Nils Klinger. Takk til Galleria Zero, Milano. The machine combines water and electricity to create lightning and clouds of steam. The result is an installation affecting the body and physical perception as well as the senses. Like in

Formuška, Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel, 2009 Photo: Nils Klinger

Formuška, Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel, 2009. Photo: Nils Klinger. Takk til Galleria Zero, Milano. The machine combines water and electricity to create lightning and clouds of steam. The result is an installation affecting the body and physical perception as well as the senses. Like in 'Chizhevsky Lessons' in Basel in 2007, the installation confronts the audience with the immaterial nature, yet natural and mysterious power, of electricity.

JH: These scientific theories and experiments – when you choose to focus on them in an exhibition, do you feel that you do this because you want to pursue this fascination, or because you want to communicate something?

MA: Both. I mean, it comes from a personal fascination, but I want to share an experience. It’s something I would like to find myself in, and that I also want to share. That’s very important. Because most of the time you find yourself really alone when you experience something, you just don’t know who to call, but then if you can share an experience with somebody else it’s much more fun.

JH: Were you familiar with Moscow before you came to work on the Moscow Biennale project?

MA: Not with Moscow, but I’d had a trip to Siberia, in the summer of 2001. I just had the feeling that I needed to escape very far from everything, so I opened the atlas and I looked east for the last stop of a railway line. This is how I found Vorkuta as the final destination of the trip. The purpose was to make a book of drawings, like I did in Iceland in 1999. I came to Russia by boat, arriving in the harbour of Saint Petersburg from Helsinki on the cargo ship Petsamo. The trip was very long with few stops. From time to time the train was split up and continued on different tracks, so if you were in the wrong carriage, you could end up in a totally different place from where you were supposed to go.
I got lost and ended up near Kotlas, which by the way was the “target of opportunity” destroyed by Major Kong's B-52 in the climax of Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film Dr. Strangelove. I spent one week in a room on the 12th floor of the Hotel Vorkuta, with an astonishing view of the vast tundra and the coal mines far away, constantly giving off a dense, dark smoke. Vorkuta is very far to the north and in the summer it never gets dark there. And it’s always raining. I’ll never forget that landscape. I started my book of drawings in that room(v). I ate nothing but smoked, salted fish with a delicious vodka from Vorkuta that had an aluminium cap which, once opened, couldn’t be closed, so the bottle had to be emptied. I also wrote down all the dreams I was having.

Vorkuta

Vorkuta, detail, «Rendez-vous», Museé d’art Contemporain, Lyon, 2004. Ice covered table with high voltage electrical circuits, installed in a refrigerated room, with an arm chair holding 37C.

JH: Some of your works seem potentially dangerous to the visitor. But rather than focus on danger I understand that you explore what it means to take risk and you investigate the physical and psychological reactions released when facing danger. How do you see risk as especially central to us – now? Is there a relation between the focus on risk and what is happening in the world, or what you are witnessing yourself?

MA: Yes, I think so, the world is getting more and more dangerous. Risk is kind of archetypic for me as a concept. I’ve been studying Kant’s Critique of Judgement, and he’s also talking about this sublime feeling. I guess this is also related to the idea of risk, to face something that scares you and is bigger than you. I also found that, in an analytical way, to be confident with this attitude or with risk itself brings you closer to an edge. Thus it gives you a chance to experience what Heidegger calls “the opening”(vi), where you can also experience art. It’s kind of an in-between zone. I have always been interested in these in-between areas, such as in-between dream and consciousness. These gaps ... I think they are the main areas where people can understand a little bit of reality. So being exposed to a risk I think forces you to understand somehow what you are facing and what you have to deal with.

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Inner Disorder #1, 2001-09. 500 drawings in 7 vitrine cabinets. «The title refers to a composition by the mucician Psykovsky, but also to quantum mechanics and particle physics, in a way.»

JH: It’s interesting, I heard a lecture from the Frieze Art Fair talking about how we all seem to be in denial when it comes to the biggest risk we are now facing – the climate change. Now, maybe it’s not relevant to you, but to me these works of yours may function as a sort of reminder that one should be a little bit braver and look towards this risk, instead of just looking the other way.

MA: Yes, I agree.

JH: Tell us about the original project idea that you planned for the Reykjavik Art Festival in 2005 – Waiting for the Unknown. I know that you weren’t allowed to install this, but would you care to describe the initial idea/concept?

MA: Jessica Morgan from the Tate Modern in London was curating a show in several different sites spread all around Iceland. She offered me a young volcano on a small island in the south as the venue for my work. It was really difficult to deal with such a live spot. When I first visited Heymaey, I was very impressed by the intense presence of the small mountain; you could really feel that that mountain was alive, though asleep. It was quite warm at the top, and there was also smoke coming out here and there. I spent a lot of time at the top of the crater, it was amazingly beautiful. Of course I wanted to deal with its power, so I was thinking of doing something with copper, but the mountain was also very big and it’s not possible to know in advance when it will wake up and erupt again with a big blast, covering the whole island in dark ashes. So I came up with this idea of dealing directly with the unpredictable eruption and I decided to install 1 ton of TNT at the top of the crater, so that when the volcano Eldfell would wake up again, its explosion would also start off the TNT explosion, and this would have left another crater next to the volcano one.

In the end it was not possible to get hold of the explosives, and I had to make a publication in newspaper format. It’s about the project and its possible consequences, with lots of interviews with geologists and volcanologists, and also witness statements from the eruption in 1973 when Eldfell rose up from the sea.

The audience were flown to Heymaey and we all walked up to the crater. We had some fireworks over there and ate raw whale meat with a special bread cooked on the hottests spot of the volcano, a place only one woman knows, and of course we drank brennivin.

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Nýidalur, 2001. Permanent installation in the village of Santa Casciano dei Bagni. The title refers to the place in the Icelandic desert where Assaël made her first book of drawings. All images courtesy of the artist and Galleri Johann König, Berlin.

JH: The art critic Polly Staple sees what you do as ”apocalyptic”. Is this an interpretation you identify with?

MA: No, I don’t understand where that comes from. In my opinion she put too much emphasis upon this in that article, though it is still a very good text. (vii)

JH: Earlier you've mentioned Bruce Naumann, Gordon Matta-Clarck, and Richard Serra as artists who’ve been important to you, and from your tattoo one gathers that you have a soft spot for Lawrence Weiner. Which artists do you find inspiring among your contemporaries?

MA: Gregor Schneider, David Zink Y, Koo Jeong A, Pawel Althamer, Christoph Buchel, Gabriel Orozco, Domique Gonzales Foerster, and many others.

JH: In what directions do you want to continue working in the years to come?

MA: I would like to carry on the collaboration with the Russian engineers and the Elektroenergeticefsky Institute, to do more works related to low temperature, electricity and sound as raw materials. I want to work with glass again and maybe also bees. I also have this dream of working in Svalbard at some point.

 

i Ester Cohen, http://www.johannkoenig.de/23/micol_assaël/texts.htm

ii Francesco Stocchi: “Clean Distortions. Spike-15, 2008, pp. 34-35.

iii “Off the Beaten Track (Holzwege) 1950

iv Polly Staple: “Risk Assessment”, Frieze Magazine, Issue N° 1 10, October 2007

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Free Fall in the Vortex of Time

v “Free Fall in the Vortex of Time, (2005) is a book of 120 pages, collages of small papers of many different kinds, the ones you use to find in your pocket and normally throw away. For about a year and a half, maybe two, I used to write numbers on these papers: additions of minutes, hours and dates starting from the time I was starting the drawing. It was a period when I was nearly incapable of waiting, so I found this system of keeping myself busy all the time. The book itself is a day of 24 hours from many different dates”.

vi «The art work opens up in its own way the Being of beings. This opening up, i.e., this deconcealing, i.e., the truth of beings, happens in the work. Art is truth setting itself to work.” Heidegger, Martin, The Origin of the Work of Art in Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans., Hofstadter, Albert. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. p. 39

vii Polly Staple: “Risk Assessment”, Frieze Magazine, Issue N° 1 10, October 2007

viii Massimiliano Gioni, "Future greats part 1", Art Review March 2008

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